The Low Down On High Water Nymphing!

By Jason Thatcher

The first few months of 2019 have been wet ones. Reservoirs are at, or near, max-pool. Rivers and streams are running higher than usual, and probably will be for most of the spring and summer. The high water presents both unique challenges and unique opportunities for the fly angler.
One of the first things we should all be aware of is safety around the higher, colder water. Moving water becomes even less forgiving and extra care should be taken when boating or wading. When boating, the increased flows will make a river far more ‘pushy’ and an operator will need to plan movements such as obstacle avoidance well in advance. Looking even farther ahead and thinking a few moves ahead than usual is critical to avoid getting in trouble. If wading, consider wearing a PFD, use a wading staff, and always wear your wading belt. Pretty common sense stuff, right?

A great advantage to fishing in high flows is it tends to concentrate fish in the soft water. Sometimes soft water is at a premium and it holds ALL the fish! For example, I often fish the Sacramento River at very high flows from a drift boat with nymphing gear. Every soft spot has trout in it. The flows become so heavy in 90% of the water, it pushes the trout to the edges. We will throw our rigs into the back eddies created by flooded blackberry bushes and trees. If the cast is accurate, its fish on!
When breaking down a particular piece of high water, look for current breaks, structure, back eddies, and softer water mere feet from the banks. Anything that offers relief from the big water. You might be shocked at how tightly the fish get sucked up to a bank. The inside bends and the downstream side of islands should be targeted as well. I recall one particular summer of guiding in Alaska where there was an excess of water early in the trout fishing season. At first glance, the usually small streams looked too big to fish, however, on closer inspection we found that every inside bend was absolutely loaded with trout and char. Epic fishing ensued!
As far as rigging goes, I commonly use an indicator set up with two flies and split shot for extra weight. Length of leader, amount of weight, and size of the indicator is all dictated by what piece of water I’m on and how big the flows are. In general, though, I will size everything up. More weight, heavier leader and tippet, and a larger sized fly. The higher flows often mean less visibility underwater, and less reaction time for a fish to identify your presentation and decide to take a swipe at it. Go bigger and brighter or bigger and contrasting (black caddis or stoneflies) to give those fish an extra moment or so to see your fly coming. I will often fish an egg pattern with a nymph dropper. If I would usually be throwing a #16 prince for example, I would size up to a 12, maybe even bigger.
Be prepared for extra strain on your tackle once you hook up. Often times you will be fighting a fish that’s using huge water to its advantage, or you will be trying to steer it away from submerged obstructions. Consider going up a weight or two with rod selection, and as mentioned earlier, scale up your leader/tippet (you can easily get away with it in the more turbid water).
Just because the rivers and streams are big doesn’t mean you have to sit at home. If there is a little bit of visibility in the water, you have the option to be fishing. Who knows, it might be the best action of the year with literally nobody else out there. Keep safety at the forefront and enjoy a unique fly fishing opportunity!
Want to fish with Jason Thatcher for trout, salmon or steelhead and learn the fine points? Book a trip with River Pursuit Guide Service! You can check them out online at